One of the frustrating and probably incurable aspects of the popular press is that when a journalist reviews a field of work, he or she tends to paint every initiative as equal. So when it comes to efforts to extend human life span, no distinction is made between projects that have a good chance of achieving radical life extension or rejuvenation and those that can at best produce a slight slowing of aging, or those that are practical and supported by the present state of scientific knowledge versus highly speculative goals that may not be possible to achieve for a lifetime yet. To the journalist, these are all the same thing. It is something to think about whenever you read an article on an area of research or business with which you have no familiarity. You might not be learning as much as you think you are:
Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, plans to live to be 120. Compared with some other tech billionaires, he doesn't seem particularly ambitious. Dmitry Itskov, the "godfather" of the Russian Internet, says his goal is to live to 10,000; Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, finds the notion of accepting mortality "incomprehensible," and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, hopes to someday "cure death." These titans of tech aren't being ridiculous, or even vainglorious; their quests are based on real, emerging science that could fundamentally change what we know about life and about death. It's hard to believe, though, since the human quest for immortality is both ancient and littered with catastrophic failures.
But historical precedent hasn't dissuaded some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley. Thiel, for example, has given $3.5 million to the Methuselah Foundation. Aubrey de Grey, Methuselah's co-founder, says the nonprofit's main research initiative, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS), is devoted to finding drugs that cure seven types of age-related damage: "Loss of cells, excessive cell division, inadequate cell death, garbage inside the cell, garbage outside the cell, mutations in the mitochondria, and crosslinking of the extracellular matrix.... The idea is that the human body, being a machine, has a structure that determines all aspects of its function, including its chance of falling apart any time soon, so if we can restore that structure - at the molecular and cellular level - then we will restore function too, so we will have comprehensively rejuvenated the body."
But SENS, which has an annual operating budget of $5 million, is puny compared with the Brin-led Project Calico, Google's attempt to "cure death," which is planning to pump billions into a partnership with pharmaceutical giant AbbVie. Google is notoriously secretive, but it's rumored to be building a drug to mimic foxo3, a gene associated with exceptional life span. Then there's the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research, the granddaddy of modern antiaging initiatives, started by venture capitalist Paul F. Glenn in 1965. Since 2007, the foundation has distributed annual "Glenn Awards," $60,000 grants to independent researchers doing promising work on aging. The Glenn Foundation also works to kick-start antiaging initiatives within large institutions ("It began at Harvard, and then we sought out MIT and then the Salk Institute and then the Mayo Clinic," Mark R. Collins, spokesman for the Glenn Foundation, explains), and it puts more than $1 million per year toward grants by the American Federation for Aging Research, a charitable foundation dedicated to age-related disease.